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What parents need to know
Parents need to know that the award-winning Italian import Life Is Beautiful is set during the Holocaust, and features some very difficult themes, including war, fear, and the loss of a parent. There are clear references to the atrocities being committed, but most of the focus is on the humorous efforts of a father to shelter his son from them. Drinking (wine, champagne) is visible in social settings; references are made to drunkenness.
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What's the story?
An Oscar-winner for Best Actor and Best Foreign Film, LIFE IS BEAUTIFUL is a fable is about a father's love for his wife and son in the midst of the Holocaust. Writer/director Roberto Benigni stars as a Chaplinesque character who charms a beautiful teacher by creating a world of gentle magic around them. But then Benigni and his wife and child are sent to a concentration camp. To protect his son's life, he teaches him to hide from the guards during the day. To protect his son's heart, he constructs an elaborate fantasy that they are participating in a very difficult contest to win the ultimate prize, a real tank. And his son finds that this make sense, and he goes along with it.
Is it any good?
This magnificent film gives us a glimpse of the Holocaust, but it is really about love, and the indomitability of humanity even in the midst of inhumanity. Life Is Beautiful inspired a lot of controversy from people who said that it was an inaccurate portrayal of the Holocaust, and that it was wrong to set a comedy, even a gentle bittersweet one, in a concentration camp. But the movie is never less than respectful of the suffering during the Holocaust, and of the impossibility of any kind of real portrayal of that experience. Even Schindler's List is not a portrayal of the Holocaust. That experience is fundamentally incomprehensible. The best we can hope for from art is that it gives us glimpses.
We often see in life and in movies that people react to extreme adversity by magnifying whatever sense of control they have left -- think of Mrs. Van Dam's focus on her coat in The Diary of Anne Frank, absurd in light of the fact that they never go outside, so she has no real need for a coat, but important because somehow she has chosen the coat as a place to locate her sense of herself as not having lost everything. In Life is Beautiful, the father focuses on his special talent for creating a feeling of magic to protect his son from the worst reality of the Holocaust, the sense of utter betrayal. Very importantly, he gives his son a sense of control, by letting him think that he has made the choice to participate in the contest. And knowing that he has kept his child's faith intact gives him a sense of control, and purpose, that keeps him going.
Talk to your kids about ...
Families can talk about the historical framework of Life is Beautiful. Does the movie teach us anything? How have other movies dealt with the same subject?
Why do you think this movie was received so warmly? What makes it special?
- In theaters: October 23, 1998
- On DVD or streaming: November 9, 1999
- Cast: Giorgio Cantarini, Nicoletta Braschi, Roberto Benigni
- Director: Roberto Benigni
- Studio: Miramax
- Genre: Drama
- Character strengths: Courage, Gratitude, Perseverance
- Run time: 116 minutes
- MPAA rating: PG-13
- Last updated: September 21, 2019
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